Vegetarians, rejoice! Although it might be commonplace to assume that non-meat eaters have lower iron levels than omnivores, numerous studies have proven that there is no noticeable difference between the two groups.

But if you're a concerned vegetarian, here’s a primer on iron for vegetarians.

Iron, an essential mineral, has several functions, including:

  • Helping transport oxygen to the cells
  • Making ATP (adenosine triphosphate), our cell’s main energy producer
  • Aiding in blood cell creation
  • Supporting protein structures in the body
  • Creating connective tissue in the body
Vegetarians have good reason to fear lacking adequate amounts of iron. Low iron levels can lead to anemia, which can result in numerous negative side effects, including lethargy, shortness of breath and headaches.

Strict vegetarians are more at risk for developing iron-deficiency anemia than those who also eat some fish and eggs.

Although the iron from some vegetarian sources is harder to absorb than animal-flesh protein, mixing plant-based iron sources with foods that are also high in vitamin C can increase iron absorption.

Some of the best vegetarian sources of iron include:

  • Whole grains
  • Dried beans
  • Egg yolks
  • Dried fruits
Iron supplements are encouraged for vegetarians who don’t get enough iron-rich foods. But, they are not absorbed by the body as effectively as the best whole food sources that are naturally rich in iron.

Did Popeye get enough iron from spinach?
Popeye was strong to the finish because he ate his spinach — or most people would like to believe.

In terms of iron density per 100 calories, spinach is unparalleled in its iron content, checking in at over 15 mg. In other words, 100 calories of spinach has the same amount of iron as eating 1,700 calories of sirloin steak, according to the Vegetarian Resource Group.

But, if Popeye ate spinach alone, his iron absorption levels might be low. The problem with spinach is that it’s high in oxalic acid, which binds to iron and hinders absorption.

What other foods have oxalic acid?
Whole grains, which, if you’re paying attention, are aforementioned as a great vegetarian source of iron, but they are also high in oxalic acid. So are beans and nuts.

What to do? Eat foods that are high in vitamin C, which helps absorb iron. Examples include broccoli, brussel sprouts, tomatoes (tomato juice as well), potatoes and red and green peppers.

Other sources of iron-rich foods for vegetarians
One cup of cooked soybeans has almost 9 mg of iron. Cooked lentils are also an excellent source, containing nearly 7 mg. Quinoa has over 6 mg. Swiss chard checks in at 4 mg per cooked cup and black, pinto and kidney beans all have at least 3 mg. And one large potato has 3.2 mg of iron.

Two types of iron
In general, dried beans and dark, leafy green vegetables are excellent sources of iron. On a per-calorie basis, vegetarian sources of iron are often touted as being better sources of iron than meat. But there are two forms of iron: heme and non-heme sources.

Meat contains both non-heme and heme iron, the latter of which is generally regarded as easier to absorb by the body than non-heme sources. Vegetarian and vegan sources of iron are comprised entirely of the non-heme form of iron.

Because of this fact, you’d think vegetarians suffer from iron deficiencies much more than omnivores, but vegetarians who consume plenty of vitamin C have, for the most part, adequate levels of iron.

Vegetarians are lucky that most vegetables that are high in iron are also high in vitamin C.

Have any other ideas for sources of iron for vegetarians? Let us know in the comments below.

Judd Handler is a health writer in Encinitas, CA.